There’s something profoundly incredible in knowing you’re playing a piece of history. When you boot up a game that you know is one which has had a monumental impact on the development of an industry as turbulent as that of videogames, it’s hard not to at least be a little in awe of the experience. I’m sure many of us can picture examples of what I’m talking about, whether that’s games which influenced genres such as, say, Halo or Doom for first-person shooters, or just generally prestigious titles like The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros. These are experiences which remain in our public consciousness as exemplars of the craft. However, not all games are as resonant with every audience, and the subject of today’s review is one such game. Despite the massive influence Dragon Quest III has had, it’s easy for us, as a Western audience, to miss out on that sense of awe and importance which this game has for Japanese players. Truly, if there ever was a game in which you should feel that sense of industry significance, it’s this one; it sounds dramatic but in many ways Dragon Quest III is the Ur-JRPG.
Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation (3DS, Android, GBC [reviewed], iOS, NES, PS4, Super Famicom, Switch, Wii)
Released Feb 1988 | Developed: Chunsoft | Published: Enix
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 28 hours
Dragon Quest III has a reputation of being one of the first genre-defining JRPGs. This might come as a surprise; after all, Dragon Quest has never had quite the resonance of its competitor franchise Final Fantasy here in the West. However, in Japan this game was hugely influential. When I say that, I do so without hyperbole; this is a game that is genuinely considered to have codified not just elements of the Dragon Quest franchise and the expectations players would have of it in future installments, but it’s also the release which would go on to influence the entire JRPG genre for generations to come.
All that said, it’s eminently possible that, like me, you might begin playing Dragon Quest III without knowing any of this. I think it’s a fair comment that one issue which can affect patient gamers trekking back through the annals of gaming history is that we play games devoid of their original context. As a JRPG fan, I might know that Dragon Quest is a series known for influencing the genre over the years, and because of that I can see a lot of elements I can recognize from later games; however, although Dragon Quest III has aged brilliantly and I think there’s plenty a modern audience can find to enjoy, I do wonder if the experience is lessened at all by stripping it of that context in which it was released.
This is the first game in the franchise that I think properly dived into what it means to be a role-playing game. As the game begins you are given a strange little personality test and are asked to pick the gender of your main character, all of which serves to set the stats for our hero. However, they’re not intended to face their quest alone; instead we’re quickly introduced to the most robust addition to the game: building your own party. Building on the foundation laid by Dragon Quest II, this time around we construct our 3 additional party members from scratch via a simple character creation tool. Once you’ve named your new fellow adventurers you can pick a job for them from a modest range of classes, each of which comes with their own array of competencies and skills. These are probably pretty straightforward for any old hands of the genre; clerics learn healing magic, mages pack offensive spells, warriors hit things with swords – you know the drill.
However, character creation has one more element and it’s this that I think is the most interesting bit that Dragon Quest III adds: the personality system. Each character gets assigned a random personality which, just like for your hero, is linked to their stats. These aren’t static; personalities can be altered both by reading special books you can find, and through equipping certain items. For example, upon finding a rosary, my timid Warrior became wrapped up in romanticism. The point of personalities is that they affect stat growths as you level up, and some negative personality traits in turn hamper your characters’ development, so they need to be augmented as soon as possible. Take, for example, my Mage; they began the game as a sore loser, meaning their Wisdom took a hit and grew more slowly than it should do. However, in truth you’d only know all this by looking through information outside the game; from the perspective of a player in the moment it pretty much seems like personalities have little tangible impact on the experience and instead serve as a fine aid to your role-playing.
While Dragon Quest II experimented with the introduction of a party, it made a crucial mistake in ratcheting up the difficulty too far to compensate for an expanded party and a wider array of tactical options. Dragon Quest III further extends the options available to you. Aside from fielding a full party of 4 instead of just 3, the range of classes means you can replay the game with totally different party setups, leading to different experiences each time you play. Still, that’s not to say that Dragon Quest III is easy, but it is much more well-balanced than either of the previous two games. While it certainly has tough moments, it’s much more happy to let players solve any blocks to progress by grinding. Of course, grinding is naturally a major part of the experience, so as with its predecessors if you don’t find any enjoyment in that process then I would hazard a guess that Dragon Quest III, the codifier of the grindy JRPG, is unlikely to change your mind.
Because the difficulty has been balanced properly, the exploration of the game world is much more fun and engaging. Although it’s pretty common for NES-era games to struggle with communicating information and particularly directions to their players (indeed, that’s an issue we’ve covered before in this franchise), Dragon Quest III came a little way into the NES’s life cycle and as a result is does by far the best job in the series so far at making sure players understand what it is they have to do and roughly whereabouts they need to go. It also does a grand job of giving natural-feeling in-game reasons for blocking progress; for example, when sailing down a strait, a wind forces your ship back as a ghostly voice wals about a lost love. An investigation into nearby towns points us towards a local legend about 2 lost that, as good RPG heroes, we are honour-bound to resolve. Like any good RPG, it sprinkles clues to encourage exploration, only this is the first time where the translation and text limits work in concert to effectively guide the player.
Another neat addition is the day/night cycle, which frankly seems impressively forward-thinking for an NES RPG. While time is frozen in towns and dungeons, roaming the overworld causes the hours to advance, but it’s more than just a cosmetic change. Different, stronger monster parties crop up in the night, and towns have differing levels of activity as the time of day changes; typically this boils down to shops not opening at night, although some towns only come alive in the evening. More than that, some parts of the main quest require you to move between day and night to trigger certain plot developments or to find certain people; thankfully the game gives you an item to quickly change the time of day to the night (called the “Night Light”, har har) so it even ensures you get to avoid the annoyance of having to spend time outside hanging around and fighting monsters just to advance the time, which is a convenience that even modern games sometimes bugger up.
Speaking of the main quest, it probably comes as no surprise that, at its base level, it’s largely the same as that of the preceding Dragon Quest titles as you step out into the wide world on a quest to defeat a dark lord threatening everyone – in this case, our fiend du jour is known as Baramos. Your player character is, for once, not a royal; instead you are the child of the hero Ortega, but our dear old dad disappeared some time ago. You are appointed by the King of your home, Aliahan, to set out to both find your father and to defeat Baramos – hero-ing runs in the blood, I guess. As ever, the use of a silent protagonist and party precludes any serious levels of characterization amongst your heroes; getting anything from the game in that respect requires you to be invested enough in your characters and their personalities to enjoy the experience of setting your own role-playing pace. Although simple, it remains an effective telling of a classic fantasy plot, and as ever it’s important to remember that it is this game specifically which set the bar for generations of subsequent JRPGs. It even pulls off a spectacular late-game twist that might perhaps seem to some to be blase nowadays, but this is the first example of it in the series and whenever you see a similar plot twist in later JRPGs, it is from this game that they are drawing that inspiration.
Dragon Quest III was one of those games that made me sit back and just go “Wow” after I beat it. It’s astounding how well it has held up. While I know I’m a sucker for retro JRPGs, I do think this game has something just a bit extra special about it. The funny thing is, to a modern audience it probably looks a bit too antiquated to consider going back to, and perhaps if you don’t care about its context or legacy then it might feel like just another fairly standard JRPG experience. But games can be more than just the time we spend playing them. They are a great big mash of our adventures with them, of the work put into them, and of the impact they have on games and players alike for years to come, and if that’s how we can experience and judge Dragon Quest III then I can safely say this is a truly marvelous game.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.